By Jim McGuire
I heard this year’s first cicada back in June—about the time summer officially began. For once it was sunny and warm instead of cool and raining, so I had the window near my desk open. The enthusiastic singer was doing his raspy best from somewhere atop the big box elder near the front door.
I recognized the sound immediately. It’s pretty hard to mistake a screeching cicada for anything other than a rusty buzzsaw or maybe a UFO trying to rev up with one of its warp-drive cylinders on the fritz. A shrill, pulsating buzz, almost mechanical. One I’d halfway been been listening for, though not really expecting to hear since post-solstice weather had mostly resembled a chilly monsoon.
Obviously this insistent fellow intended to outsmart rivals by broadcasting his amorous-minded intentions at the earliest possible opportunity. Timing is everything. …
Whether his jump-the-gun action paid off, I can’t say. What I do know is the next whirring cicada I heard occurred just a few days ago—two solid weeks deep into July. A bit late according to my purely anecdotal records…but then this has been a rather oddball couple of months, weather-wise.
Still, for me, there’s no more seasonally defining sound than the strident rasp of the annual cicadas. From my earliest memories onward, the advent of these noisy singers invariably meant true summer was inarguably at hand.
As a kid, I knew them by their colloquial name of “jar flies.” You might also hear them referred to as “harvest flies,” “Dog Days cicadas,” or if the speaker is one of the venerable citizenry of the Southern mountains, a “dry bird.”
Of course many folks continue to speak of them as “locusts,” though true locusts are various species of swarming grasshoppers. Cicadas are unrelated, more akin to aphids, leafhoppers or spittlebugs.
There are upwards of 2000 species of cicadas worldwide, with more than 100 native to the United States. Several species of annual cicadas occur regularly in Ohio — though you’ll have to be a pretty good entomologist to spot the differences. To the untrained eye, they look virtually identical.
Annual cicadas typically emerge and sing during the mid- to latter-part of summer, with brood emergence times overlapping. Hence another oft heard name, “summer cicada.”
In case you’re wondering, periodical cicadas — which you again hear wrongly referred to as 17-year “locust”—are close kin, but a different genera. The two insects do look alike, though periodicals are somewhat smaller and orange-black in coloration, with red eyes and orange wing veining; annuals are larger, greenish-black on body and wing veins.
Periodicals emerge in May and June, usually in uncountable hordes — damaging trees, clogging storm drains, and screeching en masse. Looking and sounding like a biblical plague. By contrast, the annual cicada emerges in July and August, and calls as an individual — except when he forgets to wait his turn to sing.
The cicada’s song is the loudest in the insect world, having been measured at close range at 108 decibels. To put that in perspective, a lawnmower measures about 100 decibels and a chainsaw 110 decibels. Amazing volume for a love-struck bug!
Only male cicadas sing. Vocalizations are produced by vibrating internal structures within the abdomen. The bigger the individual cicada, the louder it can call. While this shrill buzzing may sound like mere loud noise to us, female cicadas find it irresistibly attractive—a melodious insectile lovesong which sets the mood for romance.
After mating, females lay their eggs on twigs and the smaller limbs of trees and shrubs. These eggs hatch about a month later. Nymphs then drop to the ground and burrow into the earth. And anywhere from 2- to 5-years later, the considerably larger nymphs will reemerge from the soil, split and shed their tan exoskeletons, and turn into winged adults.
As a kid, I used to find and collect these jar fly exoskeletons or “husks.” I also liked catching the living, thumb-sized adults—a fairly difficult task to pull off with any regularity. But worth the effort, as a fat summer cicada stuffed down an unwary compatriot’s tee-shirt was always good for a laugh. If it buzzed upon implanting, so much the better.
In reality, while annual cicadas are quite common, the majority of folks seldom lay eyes on one. The insects transition from underground dwellers to treetop singers in short order — and it’s only at the end of this interesting cycle that we hear them sing.
Yet the annual cicada remains the genuine “town crier” of the backyard world. A seasonal broadcaster. And the next time a jar fly begins ratcheting out its fingernails-on-chalkboard screech, you might take a moment to listen and consider…that raspy, buzzing song you’re hearing is really announcing our arrival at summer’s sultry heart.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org